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May 13, 2006 |

By Daniel Carlson | Film | May 13, 2006 |

There’s no doubt that Spike Lee is one of the most prolific directors of his generation. Lee, who just turned 49, has been churning out a film every year or two since announcing his presence from the rooftops with She’s Gotta Have It in 1986, crafting provocative stories across a variety of genres that can all be traced back to the single thread of race in America. Lee’s not content to make the same film over and over again, which is one of the reasons his talents as a filmmaker and opinions about the national racial divide carry more credence than, say, a bloated and aimless melodrama like Crash. Lee made Do the Right Thing in 1989, a scathing, provocative look at color and creed that succeeded where films like Crash and so many others failed, namely, rather than present a falsified version of the world and say, “This is how it is,” Lee created a barely dramatized world and asked us, “Why is it like this?” Lee’s flawed, broken characters remain sympathetic because we make the same mistakes and are looking for the same answers. One of the most powerful scenes Lee’s ever filmed was in the underrated 25th Hour, in which Ed Norton’s Monty Brogan, facing a return to prison and an end to life as he knows it, spews a hail of sad, vitriolic curses at everyone and everything he can think of, from “the Sikhs and the Pakistanis bombing down the avenues in their decrepit cabs” to “Wall Street … Gordon Gecko wannabes” to Bush, Cheney, Enron, WorldCom, and God himself. Lee was actually responsible for keeping Monty’s tirade in David Benioff’s script after the screenwriter wanted to delete it. 25th Hour was Lee’s first film after the terrorist attacks of September 11, and Monty’s speech was a turning point for Lee, the first hint that he’s got more on his mind than just damning the Man. But if terrorism got the wheels turning, it was probably the hurricanes that wrecked the Gulf Coast last fall that really threw more coal in the fire. “Before, I used to think everything was based on race,” Lee says. “Now class matters just as much.” He brings his maturing worldview to bear in Inside Man, a taut and enjoyable thriller that masquerades as a bank heist but is really — what else? — a chance to look at ourselves in Lee’s mirror.

In his fourth turn as Lee’s leading man, Denzel Washington stars as Detective Keith Frazier, a nattily dressed cop with a penchant for hats, who’s under investigation by internal affairs as the story opens. Frazier didn’t do it, but the point is that he’s a suspect, a small but sure sign at the outset that the hero of the film doesn’t have the standard traits of the crusading lawman. In fact, most of the characters here are more complex than you’d expect in a robbery caper, especially from a first-time screenwriter like Russell Gewirtz. Gewirtz skirts convention just enough, even for a genre that requires a certain number of twists and double-crosses, to keep things fresh. In fact, Dalton Russell (Clive Owen) is a convincing foil for Frazier because he’s one of the smartest film criminals to come along in quite a while, an (even more) modern-day Keyser Soze. The film begins with Dalton looking directly into the camera, in one of the powerful close-ups Lee’s been using since Samuel L. Jackson’s Mister SeƱor Love Daddy got on the mic and told everyone to chill. Having the thief talk to the audience is hardly revolutionary, but Owen’s got charisma to spare and pulls it off flawlessly, laying out the tone and setting up the world we’ll be watching for two hours. If anything, Dalton’s narration should be enhanced slightly; as it is, it drops out after the prologue and only reappears to tie things up at the end.

Dalton and a few of his cohorts enter a Wall Street bank one afternoon, dressed in painter’s jumpsuits and sunglasses, and instantly seize control. Dalton has the foresight to force all the bank patrons he’s taken hostage to put on similar uniforms, preventing them from telling robber from victim and making it impossible for the police, who arrive shortly, to get an accurate grasp of the situation. Frazier and his partner, Detective Bill Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor) arrive to negotiate and soon butt heads with Captain Darius (Willem Dafoe), who’s calling the tactical shots at the scene. From Frazier and Dalton’s first phone interactions, it’s clear that the film exists in our world, referencing plenty of pop culture along the way, as well as several films to which Lee is paying homage. Dalton at one point refers to Frazier as “Serpico,” and when he makes the inevitable demand for buses and a jet, Frazier wonders aloud, “Didn’t this guy see Dog Day Afternoon?” The references are almost enough to turn Inside Man into some hybrid meta-thriller, as much a loving acknowledgement of the genre’s forebears as a story in its own right. But Lee’s not that lazy and does, in fact, have his own tale to tell here, one full of suspense and paranoia and the itchy-trigger-finger mentality that hit New York and spread outward when the towers fell.

Complicating matters for Frazier is Madeline White (Jodie Foster), a wealthy and well-connected woman whose exact job or position within New York society is never made clear, though she’s engaged in some sketchy business with the mayor. She’s helping a relative of a known terrorist buy an apartment when we meet her, but she’s not exactly a realtor. It might be easiest to think of her as Mrs. Wolf, a know-it-all, fix-it-all person playing for no team and following no rules but her own. When the heist goes down, she’s contacted by Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer), the bank’s CEO, who has his own reasons for making sure the robbery is stopped as soon as possible. What he’s hiding is interesting enough, as twists go, but it’s how the rest of the central characters react to it as they discover the truth that’s really fascinating: Like I said, none of the good guys are completely good, and some are more than willing to cut a deal.

Washington is in fine form here, though it’s a role he could do in his sleep: smart cop, full of righteous fury, good guy but no angel, willing to buck the system to get his man, etc. In fact, in the middle of an ensemble fighting for the spotlight, Ejiofor turns in a surprisingly nuanced performance as Mitchell, a perfectly likable sidekick who adds depth and reality to the situation. Ejiofor is one of the most malleable actors working today, equally convincing as a Nigerian immigrant in England in Dirty Pretty Things or a bloodless government assassin in Serenity, and his turn as a Soho drag queen in Kinky Boots is drawing similar praise. Foster plays one of the strongest women in Lee’s filmography, and she’s confident enough to play a wheedling, ingratiating villain. Owen plays Dalton with a frozen calm and almost casual manner, never coming close to losing his cool. I found myself oddly drawn to him, wanting him to succeed, or at least escape alive. How can anyone this cool lose?

Just as the caper aspect of Inside Man is informed by the heist movies that came before, its hostage story feeds off an inescapable reality. At one point, Frazier and Madeline talk on the street in front of a not-too-discreet banner on which the phrase “We will never forget” is repeated in red, white, and blue, forming a rough image of the American flag. When the first cop sees smoke coming from the bank, Dalton shoves a gun in his face and shouts in a fake accent, knowing that hints of Middle Eastern terrorists will distract the police from the truth. Later, Dalton releases one of the hostages, a Sikh, to deliver a message to the cops, who instantly throw him to the ground, remove his turban, and bind his hands. Even after he’s temporarily cleared, Frazier still won’t give the man his turban back until he starts to answer questions about what’s happening in the bank. The man launches into an extemporaneous speech in which he complains about the way he’s treated now because of his appearance, especially at the airport. “Yeah, but I bet you can get a cab, though,” Frazier shoots off. It’s a good joke, and it works because Lee uses it to force us to re-examine the endless conflicts of American life in the early 21st century. Radio Raheem would be proud.

Daniel Carlson is the L.A. critic for Pajiba and a copy editor at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his weblog, Slowly Going Bald.

Inside Man / Daniel Carlson

Film | May 13, 2006 |

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